For the first time since Moshe Yaalon took up his post several months ago, he has revealed his outlook on major issues and chose the respected Washington Institute as the venue in which to do so. Hamodia’s military correspondent shares excerpts of his presentation — and describes the surprise that awaited the listeners.
It’s been many years since an Israeli defense minister has appeared before a respected forum in Washington and spoken about the right of the Jewish Nation to dwell in Eretz Yisrael. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who has served as the Chief of Staff of the IDF, head of the military department in the General Headquarters, and in a range of other security-related positions, arrived in Washington last week.
He chose to present his outlook on what action Israel has to take, his opinions on what is happening in the Middle East — in bloody Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and in Iran, which has elected a new president — at the closed forum of the Washington Institute, where he previously served as a senior researcher. The protocol of his address makes it clear that this is a different type of Israeli politician. He has a clear line of thought and sees things with a broad view.
Last Friday was a very hectic one for the visiting defense minister. Throughout the day he received updates about what was happening at the voting booths in Iran. He also continued to receive the daily classified Israeli intelligence briefing about what is unfolding in Syria, and called to find out what was happening on the Turkey front. His schedule for the day included, in rapid succession, his appearance at the Washington Institute, a tour of the nearby army base, and then a flight on the V-22 helicopter that can convert into an airplane in midflight. He then landed at the Pentagon, where American Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel awaited him. The latter recently visited Israel, and a positive relationship has formed between the two.
But we will focus on the appearance at the Washington Institute, and the minister’s introduction, which stunned his listeners.
“Good morning, friends. While we are building and developing the land, on the other side of the border there are no small number of enemies that wish to undermine our right to live in Israel as a free nation on our homeland. Countries and organizations from near and far plot to harm the State of Israel and its citizens in different ways; rockets, terror, delegitimization and aspirations to develop nuclear weapons are just some of the things we have to deal with. Only a complete mobilization, mutual guarantees of security and unity among us will prevent them from succeeding in their efforts.
“We are a nation that pursues peace and our hand is always outstretched toward our neighbors. That is how we were brought up and that is how we raise our children. Our aspirations are for peaceful, productive and prosperous lives, respecting a person for what he is irrespective of religion, gender or race, and all while aspiring to peace and reconciliation. But a look at our region shows that still today, unfortunately, there is still no option for us to lay down our swords or to convert them to scythes.
The heavy fog that covers the skies of the Middle East at this time, the civil war in Syria whose repercussions are reaching our territory, and terror groups armed to the teeth on our northern and southern borders, make it necessary for us to not desist for one minute from our heightened state of alert and preparedness, to be ready at any moment for any danger, threat or difficulty, and to distance war from our nation and to win it if, G-d forbid, it breaks out.”
At the end of his introduction, which was received with much surprise, the minister reverted to routine topics, Israel’s ties with the United States chief among them.
“We Israelis have very close ties with the United States, which are based on mutual values and interests. We have an intimate dialogue with the United States, and my visit here today is part of that.
“The Middle East is undergoing dramatic changes. We are witnessing how entire areas are being transformed into lawless regions, such as the Sinai and Golan, where radical Islamic elements are taking over.
“Israel currently enjoys quiet borders, but we have to warn ourselves. What reigns today in the Middle East is instability. There are militias that are well armed with rockets and missiles, and they are a threat to our security.”
There were times when every Israeli politician or military official would begin such a presentation with the issue of Iran. But Israel is primarily concerned today with what is happening in Syria and the threat of Hizbullah in Lebanon.
“I don’t see stability in Syria in the near future,” Yaalon emphasized. “In many places we see ethnic cleansing of Sunnis killing Alawites and Alawites killing Sunnis. I’m not impressed by the Syrian regime’s achievements. President Assad controls only 40 percent of Syria. The rest is in the hands of the Sunnis and the Kurds. But the opposition is not united. The Muslim Brotherhood is supported by Turkey and Qatar. The Salafites are supported by Saudi Arabia. There are al-Qaida elements that come from Iraq, whose purpose is to create instability in Syria, and then in Lebanon, Jordan, the Sinai, and ultimately, to destroy Israel.
“Lebanon is more connected to Syria today than it was in the past. The war in Syria is spilling over into Lebanon. We see Syrian planes and helicopters operating in the Lebanon Valley against the Sunnis. Lebanon will not be stable in the near future because of this.
“Bashar Assad’s victory in al-Qusair is not a turning point in this civil war in Syria, and I don’t believe that he’s on a victory momentum. He controls only a small part of his country. Hizbullah is involved in the fighting in Syria and has absorbed many casualties in battle. As far as we know, there are more than 1000 Hizbullah casualties. We have to be prepared for a prolonged civil war, with many ups and downs.”
And what is your policy regarding Syria and Lebanon? one of the listeners queried.
“Israel’s policy is not to get involved in the war in Syria,” Yaalon hastened to answer. “We have instated three red lines for the Syrian regime: not to allow the transfer of sophisticated chemical weapons to terror groups, Hizbullah or otherwise; not to allow the transfer of chemical weapons; and to preserve quiet on our border in the Golan Heights. When they cross these red lines, as has happened in the Golan, we take action with the goal of destroying the Syrian post that is responsible for the gunfire.”
Do you also help Syrian casualties, at least those near the Israeli border, where battles also take place?
“Certainly. We provide humanitarian assistance to people living in the border region. We have established a field hospital, and we transfer Syrian casualties to hospitals in Israel, where they receive treatment like any Israeli patient.”
And then Yaalon began speaking about a different neighbor of Israel: Jordan. That country is also suffering from the effects of what is happening in the region, and as he spoke, he recommended that the United States maintain its good relationship with Amman.
“Jordan is very affected by the situation in our region. The Syrian refugees are a big headache for King Abdullah of Jordan. The situation in Syria can affect Jordan’s security. Al-Qaida elements in southern Syria are liable to challenge Jordan. As far as we are concerned, it is clear that Jordan is an island of stability in the region, and that’s why we believe that Jordan must be supported by the United States and other allies, to make sure it remains that way. The Jordanians are doing excellent work along our border.”
And in every scenario you describe, the Russians are also involved, someone remarked.
“The Russian story is related but different,” Yaalon replied. “The relations between Russia and Israel are different from the way they were during the Cold War. We have diplomatic ties with Russia and an opportunity to share our concerns, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did with President Putin a few weeks ago. We are not happy with the Russian activity in the region. In the past, the Russian government canceled a deal to provide S-300 missiles to Iran. When we have opinions regarding weapons deals — some of which are very sophisticated — we have the channels through which we can express our position to the Russian government.
“The Russians are not operating against us,” Yaalon added. “We are not at the top of their list of concerns when they sell weapons. What exists is a power struggle with the United States, and there are many open issues between these two countries, among them a no-fly zone and the future of Syria. They are using the arms supplies as a political card against the West. We’re not pleased about it, because our forces and citizens have been injured in the past from weapons sold to Syria and then transferred to Hizbullah and Hamas. We have our opinions on this issue, and we make them very clear to Moscow.”
Yaalon spoke fluidly and openly. He also addressed the issue of Egypt and its relations with Israel.
“The regime in Egypt is challenged by three factors: the economic factor, which we see no solution for on the horizon, which worries us; the political challenge by those who are displeased with the Islamic regime, which is not a sign of stability, and the security challenge — first and foremost internal security. Citizens in Egypt do not feel secure. That is why people are coming to the realization that this type of Islam is not the solution.
“We have good security ties with Egypt, which is beneficial for both countries,” Yaalon revealed. “The border we share with Egypt is the only one that is quiet, from their side. Egyptian security forces are deployed in Sinai in order to combat terror. We expect Egypt to deal with the issue of terrorists arming in Sinai, which is a lawless, chaotic region, and which poses a threat to Egypt as well. Smuggling weapons from Libya, and previously from Sudan, has diminished, and part of that is due to Egyptian activity on the issue.”
From Egypt, Yaalon moved on to discuss Turkey.
“The changes in the relations between Turkey and Israel did not come from Yerushalayim, but rather from Ankara. Already in 2004, we began to see changes when Turkey joined up with our enemies. The peak came with the Turkish provocation with the Marmara, which the Turkish government was responsible for. We will not return to the golden years of strategic ties with Turkey, but we do have good economic ties with them. We hope that ambassadors will be able to return to the capitals. We will resolve the crisis in the near future,” Yaalon expressed his hopes.
Is there a chance of a breakthrough between you and the Palestinians? a veteran member of the forum asked, diverting Yaalon’s attention to this issue.
“Secretary of State John Kerry visits us often and he aspires to bring the two sides to the table. We are ready to come immediately and to talk about everything. But not just about territory, everything. Without any preconditions. To date, they have established preconditions, and therefore, the opportunities to open a dialogue keep getting delayed.
“They want something in order to come to the table, while we want no preconditions. We are ready to discuss everything. But without an education shift in the Palestinian Authority, I cannot be optimistic regarding progress in the peace process, and we have to be prepared to manage the conflict. The heart of the conflict is their unwillingness to recognize our right to exist as the national homeland of the Jewish nation in some kind of border. We have to establish terms for transferring money to the Palestinians and changing their education system,” Yaalon advised the Americans.
He continued on the same subject: “We do not want to control the Palestinians, and they already have political independence. They actually have two governments, one in Gaza, which is somewhat deterred since Operation Pillar of Defense. I’m not sure that this will last long and we have to be prepared that the situation can change, but for now they are deterred.”
Is the Arab Peace Initiative not a good solution for Israel?
“The Arab initiative is a spin,” Yaalon replied. “Prime Minister Netanyahu already said officially that we are ready to sit at the negotiating table without any preconditions and dictations. The Arab initiative is dictating to us what to do. They demand that we first give up territory and then the Arabs will consider ties with us. That’s dictation. We are ready to sit at the table with no preconditions, immediately.”
And such a discussion without Iran, the nuclear issue and the election of a new president, would not be considered a discussion at all. Yaalon concluded his presentation with this subject.
“The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, is ultimately the one who decided who will be president of Iran. Regarding the question of whether the policies will change as the result of the new president, it depends on Khamenei and not the president himself. We have to wait and see what Iranian post-election policies will be.
“We believe that the regime has to face the dilemma: should it continue with its military nuclear program, or does it want to survive as a regime? The regime is involved in every place where there is instability in the Middle East. I suggest that you should not minimize the aspirations of the Iranian regime to rule the world and crush the ‘Great Satan’ — Western culture headed by the United States. And on the way to do that, it wants to destroy the ‘Small Satan’ — Israel, which they believe must be erased from the map.
“The Iranians have succeeded thus far in evading the economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Iran will not be affected if there will not be a viable military option on the table. In order to prevent the military option, all the tools must be used, including sanctions and isolation. It’s still possible, but we must be very rigid with them and have the patience to take the issue to the end.
“Khamenei decided to suspend the nuclear program in 2003. He was afraid of the United States then. He has to understand that today there is a firm resolve to go to the end, whatever the price that will have to be paid, from the rise of gas prices to a military operation. That is the only way Khamenei will understand that the moment to make a decision has come, and I believe he will make it.”
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon concluded his visit to the United States with a warm meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The meeting took place at Hagel’s Pentagon office, and it was preceded by a flight Yaalon took on the V-22 helicopter-plane, a number of which Israel is supposed to be purchasing from the Americans. During the one-hour flight, Yaalon sat in the cockpit and listened to the pilot’s explanations about the craft’s capabilities.
“This is an impressive aircraft, with helicopter and airplane abilities, and high maneuverability,” said Yaalon at the end of the flight. “The V-22 can take off and land like a helicopter, but can maneuver like an airplane. It will provide Israel with unique abilities for the long arm of the IDF.”
During the meeting the two discussed security and diplomatic matters on the agenda, including Iran and the elections there, the war in Syria and the ties between the United States and Israel.
“Thank you for what you are doing to strengthen the ties between our two defense echelons,” said Yaalon to Hagel. “I am happy for this cooperation. This is the second time we are meeting and I’m pleased that the ties continue to be strong and close.
“We are very worried about Iran’s progress in the nuclear field and are worried about what we don’t know. There are signs of Iranian progress that could bring it to the brink of being nuclear capable, and whether that happens is completely dependent on them.”